September 22, 2013

Tailback Lache Seastrunk (25) and Baylor have outscored their first three opponents a combined 209-23.
Robert Backman/CSM/Landov

There's no point dwelling on the least compelling Saturday of games in recent memory. Instead, let's take a look at the bigger picture. Conference play gets underway in earnest over the next two weeks, and with four weeks of results in the books, we have a better sense of the contenders and pretenders in each of the five major conferences.

In every one of these leagues, the preseason favorite or co-favorites remain unscathed, but in most cases, they're hardly the only viable contenders.


Favorites: Clemson, Florida State

The old Clemson might have walked straight into the trap laid last Thursday by NC State, which hung with the visiting Tigers well into the second half of their matchup. Yet Clemson (3-0) pounced on a blown out-of-bounds call in the third quarter that negated a long, go-ahead Wolfpack touchdown, forcing a turnover just a few plays later. Tajh Boyd then connected with 6-foot-5 receiver Martavis Bryant for two scores in an eventual 26-14 win. Clemson seems destined for a make-or-break Oct. 19 showdown with redshirt freshman phenom Jameis Winston and Florida State (3-0).

In the mix: Miami, Georgia Tech

One of these two ACC Coastal teams seems likely to face one of the aforementioned Atlantic squads in the conference title game on Dec. 7 in Charlotte. That's especially the case after the Jackets got an important 28-20 win over North Carolina on Saturday.

Wild card: Maryland

Two years removed from a 2-10 disaster in coach Randy Edsall's debut season, the Terps are a sizzling 4-0 after throttling West Virginia 37-0. Quarterback C.J. Brown is completing 66.3 percent of his passes in leading a rejuvenated offense. Maryland will be hard-pressed to emerge from a division with Clemson and Florida State, but it can certainly spoil someone else's title chances.

Big 12

Favorites: Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Baylor

What was regarded as a wide-open league coming into the season has already seen a clear separation between this trio and everyone else. The Bears (3-0) boast the nation's top-ranked offense and a surprising defense (more on them in a bit). The Sooners (3-0) and Cowboys (3-0) both seem much improved on defense as well. We'll get a better read on Oklahoma when it visits Notre Dame this weekend.

In the mix: None

You didn't think I was going to put Texas here, did you?

Wild card: Texas Tech

Kliff Kingsbury's Red Raiders are off to a 4-0 start and only figure to get better the more their young quarterbacks have time to get acclimated. But they've also been all over the map. On Saturday, Tech did not score an offensive touchdown in the first half of a 33-7 victory over Texas State.

Big Ten

Favorite: Ohio State

The perception that the Buckeyes (4-0) are head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league has only intensified following shaky starts by Michigan and Nebraska. They haven't missed a beat playing the past two games without star quarterback Braxton Miller, and they're much more explosive on the ground than they were last year, averaging 6.7 yards per carry in 2013.

ELLIS: Ohio State, Louisville cruise in morning blowouts; more early Snaps

In the mix: Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan

The Buckeyes play the Badgers (3-1) and Wildcats (4-0) over the next two weeks. Wisconsin's sole blemish was its controversial loss at Arizona State. Northwestern sleepwalked through Saturday's game against Maine, but otherwise has been impressive. Michigan (4-0) has been iffy at best, narrowly escaping Akron and UConn, but I'm not ready to rule the Wolverines out just yet.

Wild card: Minnesota

The Gophers (4-0) trounced visiting San Jose State 43-24 and are well on their way to the program's first winning season since 2008. But they may run into trouble with a tough conference schedule.


Favorites: Oregon, Stanford

Neither preseason top-five team has done anything to diminish its status, with the Ducks (3-0) rolling up at least 59 points in all three games and the Cardinal (3-0) mostly throttling Top 25 foe Arizona State on Saturday. However, no league has been more impressive than the Pac-12 in nonconference play (29-4). The pair will have to deal with a tougher-than-anticipated field.

In the mix: UCLA, Washington

The Bruins (3-0) are already up to No. 13 in the AP Poll. The No. 16 Huskies (3-0) aren't far behind. Both teams rank in the top four nationally in total offense, right behind Oregon, while Washington also ranks 12th in the FBS in total defense. Both also face the Ducks and Cardinal in consecutive weeks later this season.

Wild card: USC

The Trojans, who beat quarterback Chuckie Keeton and Utah State 17-14 on Saturday, remain mostly a mess on offense. But with the nation's fourth-ranked defense, they'll have a chance to slow down some of these high-powered Pac-12 attacks.


Favorite: Alabama

The Crimson Tide (3-0) have provided fodder for nitpickers in all three games, and they led Colorado State just 17-6 through three quarters on Saturday. Still, is anybody really ready to pick against them?

In the mix: LSU, Georgia, Texas A&M, South Carolina

Saturday's LSU-Georgia clash will not be a deal-breaker for either team's conference title chances, but it will be a great gauge of LSU, which seems like the real deal but has not faced a top-10 test like the other teams in this group. The Aggies (3-1) and Gamecocks (2-1) are already in a hole, but they're hardly eliminated.

Wild card: Ole Miss

The Rebels (3-0) have looked impressive on offense in early wins at Vanderbilt and Texas. Fans don't have to wait long to find out where Ole Miss stands in the SEC. It visits Alabama on Saturday.

Baylor's early dominance continues

Baylor coach Art Briles said on Sunday that his team is "just trying to be efficient" on offense and that he "doesn't really look at the numbers or the points." Fair enough. Let's take a look for him. The Bears' production so far has been downright Oregon-esque.

On Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe -- a team that held Oklahoma to 34 points in its opener and won at Wake Forest in Week 3 -- Baylor scored 70 points in two and a half quarters of an eventual 70-7 rout. It finished with 781 total yards, the exact same total as it racked up in its 70-13 win over Buffalo in its previous game. Throw in a season-opening 69-3 win over Wofford and the Bears are the first team since Oklahoma in 2008 to put up 60-plus points in three consecutive games.

Fans can say what they will about the level of competition. Baylor, 18-8 the past two seasons, is scarily proficient and has far more talent than even its Robert Griffin III-led 10-win team of two years ago.

"Our talent level is definitely up where we'd like it to be to be a formidable Big 12 opponent and a national player," said Briles.

Bears quarterback Bryce Petty (74.6 completion percentage, 1,001 yards, eight touchdowns, no interceptions), a fourth-year junior who was just 10-of-14 for his career entering this fall, is leading the nation in pass efficiency. He's surrounded by weapons like running back Lache Seastrunk (139 yards per game) and veteran receivers Antwan Goodley (123.3) and Tevin Reese (116.7). He plays behind a line led by projected first-round guard Cyril Richardson.

But Briles credits much of Baylor's early dominance to its longtime Achilles heel -- its defense. The Bears, who boast 10 sacks, returned seven starters from a unit that showed improvement late last season in upsets of Kansas State and UCLA, including standouts like safety Ahmad Dixon and defensive end Chris McAllister. Two of Baylor's first four touchdowns against Louisiana-Monroe were pick-sixes by cornerback Joe Williams and safety Terrell Burt.

It's best to temper enthusiasm until the Bears face some formidable conference competition, but that might be a while. Following a bye this week, Baylor hosts reeling West Virginia, plays two-loss Kansas State and Iowa State and then visits Kansas. It will be November before they face a Top 25 opponent, at which point the Bears should be ranked a lot higher than 18th.

"All we're trying to do is win football games," said Briles. "... When we step on the field, we want people to respect us and know that we're a tough out."

Derek Carr (4) led Fresno State on a game-winning, 87-yard scoring drive to beat Boise State on Friday.
Ric Tapia/Icon SMI

Fresno State looking like a BCS buster?

After becoming Fresno State's head coach two years ago, Tim DeRuyter quickly learned what matters most to the Bulldogs' fan base.

"Every time I'd go out [to speak], the first question was: 'Coach, are we gonna beat Boise this year?'" said DeRuyter. "... A lot of people here in the Valley looked at us as the original BCS busters, they came close, and Boise kind of snatched that away from us."

DeRuyter's team finally delivered that wish last Friday, snapping a seven-game losing streak to the rival Broncos with a dramatic 41-40 victory. Star quarterback Derek Carr (39-of-60, 460 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions) led a last-minute, 87-yard game-winning drive after Boise State had rallied from a 34-19 deficit. This, after a come-from-behind 52-51 overtime win against Rutgers to open the season.

"It's not good for your heart," DeRuyter said Sunday of his team's penchant for drama, "but it's great for building a team."

RICKMAN: Ascendant Fresno state beats Boise State for the first time since 2005

Now, Fresno finds itself in much the same position that Boise has occupied for so many years. As one of just three remaining undefeated non-AQ teams (the others are 3-0 Northern Illinois and 2-0 Navy) and the only one currently ranked by the pollsters (notably No. 23 in the Coaches' Poll), Fresno State is likely 2013's best hope for a BCS buster.

Last week, DeRuyter handed out earplugs to his players to symbolically block out the outside "noise" leading up to the Boise game. That's nothing compared to what's in store for the Bulldogs if they get into 7-0 or 8-0 range. "I'm telling our guys to hang on to them," DeRuyter said of the earplugs. "The noise isn't going to stop. Each week is probably going to get louder."

Fresno has the offensive firepower to win all of its remaining games, led by NFL prospect Carr and big-time receivers Davante Adams and Isaiah Burse. Its 118th-ranked defense, however, does not inspire much confidence. That's especially true given a Mountain West schedule that includes star quarterbacks like Wyoming's Brett Smith and San Jose State's David Fales. DeRuyter, 50, spent nearly his entire coaching career as a defensive coordinator (most recently at Texas A&M) and attributes the issues more to fixable breakdowns than talent deficiencies.

"I'd like to win one without having to win a shootout," he said. "But sometimes in these kind of games you've just got to find a way to win ... When we were down six [against Boise] with a couple of minutes left, there was nobody with a panicked look. They said this is no big deal, this is what we expect."

After years of trying to get even with Boise, expectations have changed in the Valley. Now, the Bulldogs are supposed to win them all.

Current BCS forecast

Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games. Here's my current edition:

Title game: Alabama vs. Stanford
Rose: Ohio State vs. Oregon
Fiesta: Baylor vs. Louisville
Sugar: Texas A&M vs. Clemson
Orange: Florida State vs. Oklahoma

Michigan had previously occupied the Orange Bowl at-large spot, but would you have confidence in the Wolverines after watching Devin Gardner throw five interceptions and Michigan commit eight turnovers the past two weeks against Akron and UConn? Coach Brady Hoke's team has managed to simultaneously improve to 4-0 and drop seven spots in the latest AP Poll.

Meanwhile, I may be two weeks from moving Michigan's archrival to the title game. If Ohio State beats both Wisconsin and Northwestern, it will be looking at a very manageable schedule until late November, while Stanford and Oregon will face numerous conference tests along the way. Or perhaps LSU will supplant Alabama with a convincing win in Athens. Stay tuned.

ELLIS: Michigan escapes with narrow win over UConn; more late Snaps

After replacing injured quarterback Jeff Driskel, Tyler Murphy led Florida to a 31-17 win over Tennessee.
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMI

Spreading the field

• After losing quarterback Jeff Driskel to a season-ending leg injury in the first half of Saturday's game against Tennessee, Florida (2-1) turned to little-known junior Tyler Murphy. After a rough start, Murphy proceeded to go 8-of-14 for 134 yards, including a 52-yard touchdown pass, and rush for 84 yards in a 31-17 victory. "He didn't just manage our team," said coach Will Muschamp. "He produced in critical situations." Losing a veteran like Driskel doesn't bode well for the Gators' SEC prospects, but perhaps Murphy will prove the offensive spark Florida has been missing.

Read Andy Staples' column from Gainesville for more on Murphy's unlikely journey.

• The Texas coaching rumor mill isn't likely to fade anytime soon, but the 'Horns' (2-2) 31-21 win over Kansas State should at least temper the level of panic in Austin. Running back Johnathan Gray's career-best 141-yard performance fueled the offense. "We had to get this game tonight," said embattled coach Mack Brown. "We had to get back on the right track". Unfortunately, Texas' already beleaguered defense suffered a crushing blow. Star linebacker Jordan Hicks suffered a season-ending Achilles injury.

• The story of LSU's first three wins was the play of quarterback Zach Mettenberger. But on Saturday night in the rain against Auburn (3-1), it rode tailback Jeremy Hill, whose 183 yards were the most by an LSU running back in nine years. He scored three touchdowns as LSU (4-0) won 35-21. "We're capable of a lot more," said Hill. "We just need to make sure we don't let off the gas."

RICKMAN: The best, worst and weirdest from college football in Week 4

Arkansas' (3-1) newfound rushing prowess under first-year coach Bret Bielema ground to a halt at Rutgers, where the Scarlet Knights held the Razorbacks to 101 yards and an average of three yards per attempt. Still, the Hogs led 24-7 in the third quarter before Rutgers (3-1) rallied to a 28-24 win behind a Janarion Grant punt return score and two Gary Nova touchdown passes. Arkansas may prove to be the 10th-best team in the SEC, but this was still a big win for both Rutgers and its conference.

• Stanford safety Ed Reynolds committed the rare targeting penalty so blatant that even his coach agreed with the call. "From the naked eye, it looked like he ducked his head," David Shaw said of Reynolds' fourth-quarter hit on Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly. "There is no question about it. That is an ejection." The play came during a second-half Arizona State surge that made it easy to forget afterward that the Cardinal (3-0) were dominant for most of their 42-28 win.

• A year ago this week, West Virginia became the toast of college football and Geno Smith the Heisman frontrunner with a dizzying 70-63 win over Baylor. Since then, the Mountaineers have gone 5-8, bottoming out in a 37-0 loss to Maryland on Saturday that leaves third-year coach Dana Holgorsen seemingly a million years removed from his 2012 Orange Bowl rout of Clemson. "Offensively we are as inept as we can possibly be in college football and I accept the responsibility for that," said Holgorsen.

• After rushing for 147 yards and three touchdowns on 16 carries in Saturday's 41-10 win over Purdue, Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon not only leads the nation in rushing (156 yards per game), but he also boasts a staggering 11.8 yards-per-carry average. And he's technically the backup to James White (16 carries, 145 yards), who happens to be the nation's active career rushing leader (3,013 yards). Ohio State's 13th-ranked rushing defense awaits this weekend.

• It's pretty clear that Notre Dame's 17-13 win over Michigan State was a bit dull when the primary topic of conversation after the game was pass interference calls. The Spartans were flagged for four of them as Irish quarterback Tommy Rees kept throwing downfield fade routes. The teams combined for 201 penalty yards and fans left knowing the same thing they did going in: The Spartans' defense is really darn good, their offense near unwatchable and the Irish know how to win close games.

RICKMAN: Notre Dame defeats Michigan State in sloppy game; more midday Snaps

• This Saturday featured a bunch of lopsided laughers, none stranger than Louisville's 72-0 romp over FIU, in which the Panthers managed just 30 yards of total offense. The teams played much of the second half with a running clock, presumed at the time by request of FIU coach Ron Turner. However, Conference USA issued a statement later saying an official "misinterpreted" a comment by the coach. "I'm not saying I wouldn't have, you know, but I did not request it," Turner said.

• First, wrap your head around the fact that Pittsburgh-Duke is an ACC football game. Now here are the numbers from their meeting on Saturday: 113 combined points and 1,130 combined yards. The Panthers (2-1) prevailed 58-55 behind six touchdown passes from quarterback Tom Savage and four interceptions from Blue Devils counterpart Brandon Connette. Savage, the Rutgers transfer, is poised for a big year thanks to the talented receiving tandem of Devin Street and Tyler Boyd.

Utah (3-1) now owns a four-game winning streak over archrival BYU following Saturday's 20-13 win in Provo. Due largely to Utah's Pac-12 membership -- a source of frustration among Cougars fans -- the Utes' streak will remain intact until at least 2016, the year of the teams' next scheduled game. "Our senior class now has never lost to these guys," said Utes coach Kyle Whittingham. " ... our junior class and sophomore class will never lose to them, either."

• In its first home game since receiver Nick Pasquale's death on Sept. 8, UCLA players paid tribute to their fallen teammate by running their first play against New Mexico State with 10 men on the field. Just before the snap, receiver Shaq Evans ran off with one arm raised to the sky. "Our 11th guy out there was Pacman," said Bruins coach Jim Mora.

• Here's your weekly Johnny Manziel update: The Aggies star notched 346 yards of total offense (244 passing, 102 rushing) and accounted for three touchdowns in a 42-13 win over SMU.

• San Jose State quarterback Fales continued to show why he's a sought-after pro prospect, going 22-of-35 for 439 yards in the Spartans' 43-24 loss to Minnesota.

• Kansas (2-1) snapped a 22-game FBS losing streak with 13-10 win over Louisiana Tech. Coach Charlie Weis' team cashed in on two Bulldogs turnovers inside the Jayhawks' five-yard line.

• A week after beating Utah in overtime, Oregon State (3-1) needed a Steven Nelson pick-six with 2:31 remaining to edge San Diego State 34-30.

Iowa (3-1) enjoyed four defensive and special teams touchdowns -- two pick-sixes and back-to-back punt returns by Kevonte Martin-Manley -- in a 59-3 rout of Western Michigan.

• Finally, Harvard won its season opener at San Diego 42-20 on Saturday. It was the Crimson's first West Coast trip since 1949.

Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee was one of several players who wore 'APU' wristbands this weekend.
Daniel Shirley/USA Today Sports

Players protest NCAA with 'APU' movement

Amid a backdrop of growing sentiment against the NCAA's amateurism rules, a handful of players around the country participated in an organized ... something. It wasn't a boycott, because they still played in the games on Saturday. But they definitely garnered some national attention.

Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee and several teammates, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and Georgia's starting offensive linemen donned the letters "APU" -- for All Players United -- on their wristbands during Week 4's games as part of a solidarity movement organized by the National College Players Association. The organization, formed to advocate for NCAA reform on behalf of athletes, is loosely tied to the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit and other reform efforts, but this is its first attempt at a public protest of sorts.

"Players will continue to wear the APU throughout the season and spread the word," NCPA president Ramogi Hum told "They're taking the reform effort to television, which has never been done."

According to the NCPA's website, APU is intended to serve a number of purposes. It's supposed to support "players who joined concussion lawsuits against the NCAA" and players who signed on as co-plaintiffs in the O'Bannon case. It's supposed to "stand behind individual players being harmed by NCAA rules" and advocate "direct[ing] a portion of over $1 billion in new TV revenue to guarantee basic protections" for permanently injured players and full cost-of-attendance scholarship stipends.

It's unclear why these specific players were chosen, though Georgia's linemen were reportedly supporting starter Kolton Houston, who the NCAA declared ineligible for three straight seasons due to a failed drug test, while Kolter has publicly expressed support for the O'Bannon plaintiffs.

If the APU movement were to truly catch on -- either with mass numbers of players or higher-profile players -- it would add yet another thorn in NCAA president Mark Emmert's side. However, it's unlikely to have any tangible immediate ramifications, especially given the project's vaguely stated mission.

Rice: Onside kick for the ages

You've undoubtedly seen plenty of onside kicks. You've never seen one quite as awesome as this.

San Jose State: Onside kick ... er, FIGHT!

San Jose State punter Harrison Waid attempts an onside kick that ends with him getting ejected.

Looking ahead

Mini-previews for three of Week 5's big games:

LSU at Georgia, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): Aaron Murray threw for 408 yards in Saturday's win over North Texas and has now passed for at least 300 yards in four straight games dating to last year's Capital One Bowl. LSU's defense is allowing 173.8 passing yards per game. This one is going to be fun.

Oklahoma at Notre Dame, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): Sooners quarterback Blake Bell will make his second career start against Louis Nix and a fierce Notre Dame pass rush. Oklahoma's new-look 3-3-5 defense appears significantly improved, but it has yet to face anything resembling a ranked opponent.

Wisconsin at Ohio State, Saturday (8 p.m. ET): The Buckeyes, winners of 16 straight games, begin their Big Ten title quest against the three-time defending league champs. The Badgers' prolific rushing attack will test coach Urban Meyer's defense, but Wisconsin's D will have to keep pace with Ohio State's explosive offense.

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